Grandmother-of-nine Wynne Richards had been looking forward to a fun-packed family Christmas. Instead, she spent it alone in bed, gripped by such severe stomach pains and diarrhoea she feared she was about to die.
‘There was one night when I hadn’t been to sleep, I hadn’t eaten for days and I’d been up and down constantly when it all seemed to be getting too much,’ the 77-year-old says.
‘I said to myself, “Wynne, this is it. You’ve got to this age but if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen.” ’
Six weeks on she’s still feeling unwell, still taking medication and still unable to eat anything but the blandest of foods.
And the root of her problem? Campylobacter — Britain’s most common food-poisoning bug. Wynne tested positive for the bacteria after visiting her GP. Although she can’t be sure how she caught it, it’s likely it came from eating chicken, the most common source.
Once a week she would buy a fresh chicken breast for herself, cook it and eat it — a routine she followed in the run-up to Christmas.
‘I know you have to cook chicken properly and I always do,’ says Wynne, who lives in Birmingham. ‘I like it well-done.’
The trouble is that while cooking kills the campylobacter bacteria, it may already have been too late for the pensioner.
As a shocking Mail investigation shows today, the bug is now so widespread there’s a good chance of coming into contact with it simply by buying a chicken at a supermarket — let alone eating it.
Last week, microbiological tests carried out by an independent laboratory for this newspaper found bacterial contamination on the external packaging of fresh chickens purchased at some of the country’s leading supermarkets.
It proved that a customer picking up a wrapped chicken is at risk of transferring the bacteria on to anything else they touch. Once transferred into the mouth, there’s every chance they’ll fall ill.
Experts say the problem is such that shoppers handling packaged chicken should take the same precautions as if handling the raw meat itself.
And they are calling for urgent changes to the way in which chicken is produced, slaughtered and packaged. Concerns are such that plans are currently being discussed to clean all chicken carcasses with chemical washes or even to irradiate them ahead of sale.
‘This organism far outstrips illness caused by salmonella,’ said one industry expert. ‘But, strangely, the public seems to be extraordinarily ignorant about the scale of the problem.’
Each year in Britain some half a million people are infected by campylobacter. Taking into account the cost of treatment and days off work, it is reckoned that annually the bug costs the economy some £600 million.
In most instances, symptoms include diarrhoea, stomach cramps and a feeling of general unwellness that will last for up to a week. While unpleasant, they’ll generally clear up without medical intervention.
But there can be complications, especially among the young, elderly and infirm. In 2008, 15,000 people suffering from the bug were hospitalised and 76 died.
Because symptoms can take up to ten days to show, identifying the source of infection is difficult.
However, while campylobacter can be found in most raw meats, unpasteurised milk and untreated water, chicken is the main source of human infection. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimates that six in ten fresh chickens sold in supermarkets are contaminated.
Last week the Mail purchased a whole fresh chicken from eight supermarkets: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Asda, The Co-op, Morrisons, Aldi and Lidl. Waitrose was not tested because there was no store near enough to the laboratory.
The chickens, bought in a Midlands city, cost between £2.85 for a chicken at Lidl and £8.41 for an extra large chicken from M&S. The samples were then taken to a leading laboratory and tested for salmonella and campylobacter. The results were alarming. The meat from Asda and Tesco tested positive for campylobacter.
The organism wa s also found in the Sainsbury’s product and on the outside of its packaging, likewise with the M&S chicken and its wrapper.
The meat from Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons and the Co-op were all uninfected. Across the board, the tests were negative for salmonella.
The Mail’s findings back up a recent study by food safety officials in Birmingham. They purchased 20 packaged fresh chickens from outlets across the city and had them tested.
Campylobacter was detected on the outside of the packaging of eight of the 20 samples, or 40 per cent. The pathogen was found in the meat of seven samples — 35 per cent.
What was interesting was that there was no link between the positive results they found on the meat itself and on the external packaging. The wrapping on some chickens tested positive even though the meat inside was negative.
This clearly suggests that the item had become contaminated at some stage between packaging and the chicken’s arrival on the shelves.
The bacteria’s presence on the packaging is a particular worry because the bug becomes a problem when it is ingested.
Because campylobacter will be killed by thorough cooking, this normally occurs when someone either eats an under-cooked piece of contaminated chicken or handles a raw, contaminated bird.
But it is clear that it could also occur by touching a contaminated wrapped chicken and then transferring the bacteria to one’s mouth.
‘The public have been made aware via education, health promotions and packaging instructions on how to store, prepare and cook poultry safely,’ says Nick Lowe, Birmingham City Council’s food safety team manager.
‘However, people are largely unaware that the outside of the packaging can be a source of contamination. Consumers remove chicken from the display cabinets and the potential for cross-contamination starts.
‘Any surface this comes in contact with will be contaminated, including hands, shopping bags and other ready-to-eat foods and work surfaces.
‘The risk is potentially equivalent to handling raw meat and poultry and the precautions should, therefore, be the same.’ In other words, shoppers should think about where they are placing the chicken in their trolleys and avoid putting their hands into their mouths until they have washed them.
For instance, shoppers with children often ask them to pick up items and then they may stick their fingers in their mouths or are given a packet of crisps to eat,’ says Mr Lowe. ‘You might not want to have them picking up chicken.
‘If a two-year-old gets a large amount of campylobacter on his hands, there’s a good chance of him being ill if he transfers it into his mouth.’
While educating the public makes sense in the short-term, in the long-term, more effort — and money — is needed to ensure that when chicken reaches the shelves it is campylobacter-free.
The bacteria lives primarily in the chicken’s gut where it usually causes little or no problems.
Poultry pick it up in their natural environment, from soil, ponds and puddles, insects and rodents. For this reason, free-range chickens are just as likely to carry the bug as intensively-reared poultry.
But in high-density flocks, the bacteria spreads rapidly as food is contaminated by faeces. Evidence suggests that intensively-reared chickens may absorb the bacteria into their bloodstream through damage in their gut-lining caused by stress. In terms of transmission to humans, the key moment comes when the bird is slaughtered and packaged. ‘If the bacteria stayed in the gut, none of this would matter,’ says Professor Malcolm Bennett, an expert on infectious diseases at the University of Liverpool.
‘Unfortunately, chickens tend to soil themselves, and the processes used in slaughterhouses and processing plants mean it is almost impossible to stop some contamination of the chicken carcasses themselves.
‘Chicken slaughterhouses are highly mechanised places that may deal with hundreds of thousands of birds each week. Very freshly killed birds are scalded in hot water to soften the feathers, and the feathers are then beaten off by special machines.
‘This is quite an effective way of transferring faecal material from one bird to the skin of many.’
Given these high levels of cross-contamination, it is being suggested that one way to tackle the problem would be to chemically wash the chicken carcasses, ahead of packaging. In New Zealand, an anti-microbial wash is used which has markedly reduced contamination. Producers in the U.S. use a chlorine rinse.
FSA officials are in talks with the food industry, but chemical washes for fresh chicken are not permitted in the EU and new regulations would be required.
Surveys suggest that British consumers are opposed to a chlorine wash. Lactic acid, a food additive found in some yogurts and cheeses, is being suggested as an alternative.
Others believe washing chicken or irradiating it is the wrong way to go. They argue that it will simply remove the incentive for farmers and slaughterhouses to clean up their act.
Another option would be to freeze more chicken, which kills the bug. The British, however, prefer chilled meat.
Last night Andrew Opie, food director at the British Retail Consortium, insisted that chicken was ‘perfectly safe’ so long as the common-sense rules that apply to all raw meat are followed.
He said: ‘People should wash their hands after touching it and make sure it’s properly cooked.’
A spokesman for Sainsbury’s said: ‘The safety of our food is our No. 1 priority and we are working with the poultry industry and Government to reduce campylobacter. We are also developing a leak-proof packaging to help reduce the presence of the bacteria.’
Marks & Spencer told us: ‘We take food safety very seriously. We’re working on plans to help reduce, and ultimately eradicate, campylobacter.’ And a spokeswoman for Asda added: ‘Campylobacter is a complex organism and retailers are already working to find ways to reduce it.’ Tesco did not comment.
A spokesman for the FSA said: ‘We always advise people to take care not to spread germs when handling raw chicken even if it is still in its packaging.
‘Unfortunately, levels of campylobacter on chicken in the UK are high, which is why we’re working to reduce the spread of this bug at all stages of the food chain.’
Meanwhile, Prof Bennett believes that to tackle the problem of campylobacter infection, a combination of steps will have to be taken: stopping infection getting into the poultry houses, reducing stress levels of the flock, washing slaughtered birds and improving hygiene at home.
‘The consumers need to tell the retailers that they want this to happen, or they will shop elsewhere, but at the same time need to understand that these measures will increase the price of chicken,’ says Prof Bennett.
‘Increased biosecurity on farms costs money — for example putting screens over windows to stop flies getting in.
‘And, of course, there is no point doing all of this in the UK if people simply buy cheaper imported chicken from, say, Asia, where all these controls may not be in place.’
He adds: ‘There are answers to the problem, but they are not easy, and in the end people have to decide what is more important to them — a reduced risk of campylobacter infection, or ridiculously under-priced poultry meat.’
For the recovering Wynne Richards, and the 500,000 or so Britons who will be struck down by the bug over the next year, that’s something of a no-brainer.